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Is it top two or bust for the Rockets?

The upcoming draft has a clear top two. Should the Rockets even entertain anyone else?

Basketball: Overtime Elite-Cold Hearts at City Reapers
Amen Thompson is an exciting prospect. Is he right for the Rockets?
Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

I play a lot of NBA2K.

Specifically, I’m a fan of MyNBA mode. I can sink an hour into simulating the trade deadline and offseason, rebuilding the Rockets, and then decide I don’t even feel like playing the actual game. With that said, I seldom do a Victor Wembanyama rebuild.

I just can’t. I love myself too much. It’s too much fun, and every minute I sink into envisioning the Rockets’ future with him will be taxed with interest if he ends up somewhere else.

I am partial to a Scoot Henderson rebuild. It sort of splits the difference between dreaming and delusion. Plus, my irrational gut feeling tells me Henderson is a Rocket. There’s something karmic about rebuilding from the Harden era to finish with the most exciting young backcourt in the NBA. Wembanyama is a Spur.

Of course, odds are, neither of the two ends up in Rockets red. The worst team in the NBA (a dubious distinction the Rockets look likely to receive for an unprecedented third year in a row) has a 47.9 percent chance of landing fifth overall. It’s by far the most probable outcome.

If it’s a reality for the Rockets, should they trade the pick? Is there any prospect worth drafting outside of the top two for this team?

The field

Right now, the top five seems likely to be rounded out by the Thompson twins and Brandon Miller. Let’s look at them.

The Thompson twins, to be sure, are phenoms. Amen probably has the third overall spot locked up at this point. Frankly, there’s a chance that he’s the best player in the draft.

No, I’m not joking. Amen Thompson is a 6’7” point guard who sees the floor with a prodigy’s eye. He’s the best run-and-jump athlete in the NBA, and he isn’t even in the NBA yet. This kid has tools like Tim Taylor (or, for our younger readers, Bob the Builder).

Besides a jump shot. Thompson can’t shoot - at all. The form looks busted, and the results confirm it. Thompson is shooting 23.1 percent in the Overtime Elite (OTE) this season.

His brother Ausar is fairing better from distance, but he’s still not a significant threat. There’s also the concern about their competition level. The best pro to come out of OTE so far is Jean Montero. If you haven’t heard of him, congratulations - you don’t play too much 2K.

Finally, Miller is a solid prospect. He shoots the lights out, and he looks at least solid in his passing, ball-handling, and rebounding.

In stark contrast to the Thompsons, he doesn’t have a substantial flaw - he just doesn’t have that star quality, either. It’s easy to envision him as a good NBA player. It’s more difficult to imagine him making multiple All-Star teams. More than anything, he’s lacking burst and vertical. Miller just isn’t a special athlete.

I spent more time on Amen Thompson because the claim that the Rockets shouldn’t draft him is likely to be the most contentious one. I’m not even sure about it. Draft nerds are likely to hurl phrases like “outlier” and “rim pressure” at me like they’re hand grenades if they come across this piece.

It’s not that I don’t like Thompson - I like both Thompsons, actually. If the Rockets draft them, I’ll be some mixture of excited and weary.

Why weary?

The case against the field

I know. Best Player Available. This entire argument is a cardinal sin. You don’t pass on talent.

What if that talent is a lead ball-handler who can’t shoot in the year 2023? There are not many examples of superstars without jump shots in the modern NBA. Giannis Antetokoumnpo is one. He is, to borrow the parlance, a bit of an “outlier”.

Let me be perfectly clear. I’m not making the case that the Rockets absolutely can’t draft Amen Thompson. I’m only making the c

Perhaps Amen Thompson can be a comparably effective inside scorer. It’s not out of the realm of possibility. At 6’7,” he doesn’t quite have the former MVP’s size, but his vertical leap and speed could compensate.

It just seems likely to take a while. Frankly, the Rockets don’t have time. This team has been the laughingstock of the NBA for three consecutive seasons. They can’t afford to sink time into developing Amen Thompson’s jump shot for the next several seasons.

Frankly, I’d be more comfortable drafting his brother. At the same time, Ausar doesn’t project to be a strong shooter in the NBA either. He may take a few years to hit his stride. Brandon Miller may never be more than a quality starter.

The Rockets don’t have time to find out

The Rockets have to right the ship

This actually isn’t about the pending first-round pick the team owes to the Oklahoma City Thunder.

I’ve made the case elsewhere that rushing to put a competent team together to avoid sending the Thunder a good pick would be to submit to the sunk cost fallacy. That’s not a major concern. There could be real costs to remaining in the league’s cellar.

Players start demanding trades. Suddenly, they're distressed assets. Potential free agents will thumb their noses. In today’s league, every star player is a free agent. If you’re not on their shortlist of teams when they demand a trade, you’re probably not landing them.

If either Thompson twin was a can’t-miss prospect, we wouldn’t be here. You’d swing for the fences. It just happens that they’re both can-miss. In fact, they both do miss: frequently. It’s not unreasonable to suggest that the absolute lack of a jump shot could be a fatal flaw. Antetokoumnpo is really the only top-10 player in the NBA right now who doesn’t hit more than 30% of his triples.

The energy around this team is already, to put it politely, strained. Stephen Silas even raised his voice. There has to be progress in 2023-24.

Not the playoffs - heck, maybe not even the play-in tournament. Still, we need to see some progress.

It feels unlikely that we’ll see much of it while trying to work out the dynamic between Amen Thompson and Alperen Sengun. They’re both non-spacing offensive engines.

I’ve heard it argued that two non-spacers can work if one is a great cutter. I disagree. Cutting can’t replace shooting. You simply can’t cut as often as you can shoot. That’s a complicated solution - generally, the best NBA teams have pieces that are evidently right for each other.

How should the Rockets get that piece?

The Rockets should shop any pick outside of the top two

This could look any number of ways.

The Rockets could outright move the pick for a star. Of course, it depends on which stars are available. I’m not even going to list names - it simply depends on who’s available.

They could also trade back. Trade the third pick for an elite three-and-D wing and the eigth pick. Move the fourth pick for a solid veteran point guard, an unprotected future first, and the 10th pick.

If they’re lucky, this problem solves itself. Land a top-two pick in this draft, and you cling to it for dear life.

Otherwise, nothing should be off the table.